Holyrood News

This week in Holyrood, MSPs have been discussing ….

Independence referendum
On Monday the UK Government published a consultation Scotland’s Constitutional Future, containing a commitment to allow the Scottish Government to hold a legally binding referendum, but with proposed strings attached: Minimum voting age should be 18; Electoral Commission must supervise the process; There should only be a single ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question to independence.  It was reported on Monday that they also wished to include a demand to hold the referendum within 18 months, but they seemed to have dropped this after a backlash.  On Tuesday the Scottish Cabinet also signed off the Scottish Government’s referendum timetable, and announced that the referendum would take place in the autumn of 2014. The Scottish Government will shortly publish its own consultation on the referendum timetable
A Labour-led debate on Thursday led to a parliamentary motion being passed (as amended by the SNP) which reaffirmed the Scottish Parliament’s belief that the referendum should be run from Scotland and that 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote Why wait till 2014? In the election the SNP said it would be in the second half of the Parliament. 2014 allows a full and informed debate on what is the most important decision Scotland will have made in 300 years. Legality: The Scottish Government have a range of legal opinion in support of the Scottish Parliament’s right to hold a consultative, advisory referendum, indeed the draft bill introduced in 2010 demonstrates that they have that competence.  An orderly timescale: The referendum consultation will be published in January. Legislation for the vote will be introduced in Jan 2013 and go through Holyrood that year. The Gould report called for a six month gap between any legislation and the referendum itself and there should not be two different elections on the same day by waiting until after the European Elections and holding the referendum in Autumn 2014.  What will the question be? The SNP preference is for independence and a clear yes or no question – however unlike the UK parties who seem scared of devo max, they recognise that there is a body of opinion in Scotland (including the STUC, charities and business organisations) who want to explore a “devo-max” style option and we will listen to their views.  Who will be eligible to vote in the referendum? The draft Bill published last year follows the precedent of the 1997 referendum. Eligibility to vote is based on that for Scottish Parliament and local government elections. The only difference is that the Scottish Government propose to extend the vote to those aged 16 or 17 who are on the electoral register on the date of the poll. It is disgraceful that countless Labour and Lib Dem politicians who signed up to the votes at 16 pledge now appear to have abandoned it.

Tourist visitor increase
Results from the 2011 International Passengers Survey and GB Tourism Survey were published this week, showing an 8% increase in the number of visitors to Scotland during the first ninth months of this financial year.  The domestic market showed a 10% increase and a 21% increase in spend.  Internationally, the number of visitors fell by 4% but the number of people coming from North America rose by 18%.  Tourism is one of the key growth sectors in Scotland, which will enable us to meet our target of a 50% increase in exports by 2016.  We have many major events and milestones to look forward to, including the release this summer of Disney-Pixar’s Brave. Further down the line we have the Year of Homecoming, the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Improving learning outcomes for all young people in 2012
On Thursday afternoon, the Scottish Government debated improving learning outcomes for all young people. The focus was on attainment; the Scottish Government is committed to raising attainment for all of Scotland’s young people, enabling them to achieve their full potential. The educational priorities for 2012 were set out by Michael Russell as reform of post-16 education, youth unemployment and continued implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence.  Michael Russell said “This means the early years and preventative spending, continuing to invest in Curriculum for Excellence, including building Scottish Studies and languages and tackling youth unemployment with a new opportunity for each young person through the Opportunities for All programme. In post-16 education our focus is on building on the excellence of our universities, reforming our colleges so that they deliver even more and making sure that opportunities for skills are available to every young person.”  There have been recent developments in this area, in terms of coverage of the Commission on School Reform, supply teachers and the 7th December Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland. In addition, in December it was announced that there would be a dedicated Minister for Youth Employment with an extra £30 million to be invested in helping young people into training, work or education.  Alex Salmond said “We are already undertaking an ambitious reform programme of post-16 education in which we have asked colleges to prioritise 16 to 24 year olds to ensure that our young people, the learners, remain at the heart of funding and provision. Today we are again demonstrating this commitment to young people and to growing the Scottish economy still further, by ensuring that not a single school leaver falls through the cracks and has the chance to make the most of their potential.” On 6th December Angela Constance was named as the Minister for Youth Employment.  She said “The Scottish Government is already committed to ensuring every 16-19 year old in Scotland has a place in training or education and we have backed up that pledge with an extra £30 million investment over the next three years, on top of existing resources already in place… We must maximise the potential of our young people and ensure that not a single one is left behind.” In closing for the Scottish Government, Minister Alasdair Allan emphasised the success in place and acknowledged the contributions that focussed on education for the least advantaged, ensuring learning outcomes for all. He also spoke on Opportunities for All, the importance of early years and the comparison of college funding with cuts made by Westminster. Looking to 2012, key reports commissioned by the Government will report and Curriculum for Excellence will further embed in Scottish schools, continuing in listening to the views of teachers on this.

High-interest payday loans
On Thursday evening there was a member’s business debate on high-interest payday loans. The motion in the name of Margaret Burgess has gained cross party support. It refers to the recent report from insolvency experts R3 and the high interest charges on payday loans. It calls for the UK Government to introduce stronger crisis loans regulation, particularly to ensure protection for vulnerable customers and to tackle dishonest and irresponsible lending. It concludes by referring to development of credit unions.  Payday loans provide people with finance in advance of their next pay day and are usually up to 30 days in duration, though for a fee this can sometimes also be extended. Recently, there has been news coverage on high interest payday loans, including the report from insolvency experts R3, illustrating the risk that many will turn to these loans. Interest rates can be as high as 4,000% per year and we have called for stronger regulation from the UK Government and action on dishonest lenders. Margaret Burgess has pointed to the importance of providing financial advice and education and the key role credit unions can play in this industry.  The current economy climate, with increased pressure on household budgets, has forced more people to turn to high interest loans.  On 4th January a YouGov survey for Shelter found that 2% of people in Britain had resorted to pay loan companies, while struggling with mortgage or rent payments. Shelter Scotland warned that quick-fix loans for those struggling to pay bills could lead to eviction and homelessness.  Over the past five years the number of credit companies offering short-term loans has increased dramatically and often see an increase in customers over the festive period, with the promise of ‘quick approval’ and access to cash ‘within minutes’.  Alyn Smith MEP has called for regulation: “It is clear that some legal restrictions must be put in place in order to curb the ludicrous rates of interest. This has already happened in many other European nations as well as 35 US States, where there is a limit on the maximum interest these companies can charge, so it is possible.”

Credit Unions
The Scottish Government does not have the power to change or restrict interest rates, but can look at areas like education on money issues, access to advice and the use of credit unions for borrowing. Credit Unions can play an important role in this area and are a vital role in financial services for communities. Credit Unions are regulated by the Financial Services Authority and remain reserved.  Over 3 million Scots are currently eligible to join a credit union which offers the credit union Current Account. Many credit unions are offering a range of services including life savings insurance, Child Trust Funds, cash ISAs and mortgages. The credit union sector is especially strong in Scotland with more than 1 in 20 people currently members of credit unions, far more than in the rest of the UK.  Fergus Ewing answered the debate for the Scottish Government, confirming that he will meet chief executives from Citizens Advice Scotland, Money Advice Scotland and Scotwest Credit Union next week and following this “we will engage more widely—with civic society in Scotland, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and with others.” He concluded by expressing his commitment for following up the debate and tackling this issue.

Educational attainment of looked-after children
On Wednesday, MSPs debated the Education Committee’s inquiry into the attainment of looked after children. Unusually, the debate was held ahead of the publication of the committee’s report in line with the Presiding Officer’s reform agenda, the idea of this being to allow the Chamber the chance to feed into the committee report.  The Committee agreed to hold the inquiry due to Scottish Government statistics showing looked after children tend to have poorer school attendance, higher exclusion rates and are less likely to go on into employment, further or higher education, training or voluntary work after leaving school.   Ahead of the debate, the committee produced a summary of the emerging themes from evidence taken during the inquiry. The key themes were: readiness to learn; support at school; implementation of policy and legislation; joint working; and resources.  During the debate Committee convenor Stewart Maxwell said “The biggest challenge is improving the educational attainment of those children who are looked after in their own homes as their circumstances can often be the most chaotic.”
Mr Maxwell added that more effort was needed to ensure that joined up working can be carried out, and a shortage of foster workers and teachers dealing with children with additional support needs was identified as an area of concern.  Minister for Children and Young People Aileen Campbell, said that the Scottish Government was taking a number of steps to raise attainment, and investment in early intervention and preventative spend were just two things that would make a difference.  She added  “To be able to learn, children need safe, stable and nurturing homes. That is why this Government is focusing on ensuring that looked after children experience as few placements as possible.”

High speed rail
On Tuesday, UK Transport Secretary Justine Greening gave the go-ahead to a £33bn high speed rail network, however phase one of the plans she outlined will only take the line as far as Birmingham and this will not be running until 2026.  Following the announcement, Transport Minister Keith Brown met with UK Minister Mike Penning and won the right for talks between the high speed rail company HS2 and the Scottish Government to take place right away on bringing the service to Scotland. Ms Greening has also agreed to visit Scotland in the coming weeks.  Mr Brown said that the Fast Track Scotland group he formed last year had found the case for high speed rail in the UK was strengthened when Scotland was included in the mix. He added: “In our meeting, Mr Penning accepted that this is the case and agreed there needs to be a route north beyond the currently planned Y-shape line which will run to Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds. He also agreed that we have to ensure best value for money out of every penny spent and agreed that this must include Scotland.”  Mr Brown has also stated that Scotland must benefit from any Barnett consequentials resulting from the project.  He also rubbished claims from Labour MP Tom Greatrex that “constitutional uncertainty” could make high speed rail in Scotland less likely, stating: “This claim is nonsense. Ms Greening recognises that the Scottish Government has the powers to develop high speed rail and UK Transport Minister Mike Penning has agreed that HS2 will engage with the Scottish Government with immediate effect on plans for a line between England and Scotland. No constitutional issues were raised by Mr Penning during his meeting with me yesterday. “High speed rail is already developed across an expansive European network, with trains operating between Spain and France, between Belgium and Germany, and – indeed – between Paris and London.”

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